"Nobody wins in a strike," Ray Conner, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, wrote Thursday in a message to engineers and technical workers. "It's important that we protect our competitiveness in the long-run, even if that means some short-term pain."
Conner and Boeing are facing down two challenges: a 787 that has been grounded by federal regulators and a potential strike by the very workers the company is relying on to return the Dreamliner to commercial service.
The 22,950 members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace received this week ballots to vote on Boeing's contract offer. SPEEA leaders are urging members to reject Boeing's offer. Also on the ballot is measure, also supported by union leaders, that would give SPEEA negotiators the authority to call a strike.
If granted strike authorization, SPEEA negotiators intend to "return to the bargaining table, under the auspices of the federal mediator, to get a better contract," Ray Goforth, SPEEA's executive director, told members in a video message.
SPEEA members have until 5 p.m. on Feb. 19 to return their ballots to the union.
The vote tallying will take place -- barring a major breakthrough -- before Boeing will resolve the battery troubles that grounded its Dreamliner on Jan. 16.
On Thursday, investigators called into question assumptions made by the company in seeking special certification from the Federal Aviation Administration on the 787's lithium-ion batteries. The FAA reiterated its vow to safety Thursday while granting Boeing's request to conduct 787 test flights to gather data on the jet's batteries and electrical systems. Boeing has to take precautions on the test flights and isn't allowed to fly over populated areas.
Boeing's Conner appealed to SPEEA members' sense of dedication in his message Thursday.
"It was your innovation, talent and skill that brought the 787 Dreamliner to life," he wrote. "Now more than ever, we need to deliver on those promises by coming together as one team."
SPEEA leaders, however, say the company's proposal would divide the union in the long term, not bring members and the company together.
The major point of contention in Boeing's contract offer is a change in retirement plan for SPEEA members hired after Feb. 28. Those workers would be enrolled in a 401(k) plan, not the pension given to existing SPEEA members. With 50 percent of Boeing workers expected to retire within the next decade, union leaders fear a potential rift between members with pension and those without within a couple contract cycles.
In his message, Boeing's Conner dangled another trump card in front of SPEEA members: future development work.
"Getting a better handle on our pension costs now will enable us to do more amazing things in the future like the 777X and the 787-10X," Conner wrote.
Even as Boeing return its 787-8 to commercial service, the company is working on two larger Dreamliners -- the 787-9, set to be delivered next year; and the yet-to-be-launched 787-10X. Additionally, Boeing's popular Everett-built 777 faces competition from Airbus' A350 unless the Chicago-based Boeing strikes back with an updated version, dubbed the 777X.
In late 2011, Boeing was able to ink a quick contract deal with local members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers by promising to keep 737 MAX work in Renton. But the Machinists had leverage in the form of a federal labor lawsuit against Boeing. In signing the new labor contract, the union agreed to ditch the lawsuit, which alleged Boeing illegally retaliated against local Machinists for work stoppages in picking South Carolina over Everett for a second 787 assembly line.
SPEEA leaders, as well as industry analysts, believe union members also have leverage, given the company's dire need for engineers and technical workers to resolve the 787's problems.
Whether SPEEA members agree won't be clear until Feb. 19.
Read Boeing's FAQs on the contract from workers here.
Read Conner's message to workers here.
Read SPEEA leaders' messages to members here.
SPEEA Executive Director Ray Goforth talks about Boeing's contract offer here.
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